Key West Florida is known for two things: the Ernest Hemingway house (with its 6 toed cats) and Key lime pie, named after limes which grow in the Florida keys. A favorite American dessert made with Key lime juice, sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks, the traditional”Conch version” utilizes the egg whites to make a meringue topping. Key limes are smaller, more sour and salty than the common limes we purchase year-round in grocery stores and grown abundantly in other areas of Florida and California. Key lime juice, unlike ordinary lime juice, is pale yellow, which, along with the egg yolks, produces the filling’s pale color.
Appearing in the early 20th century the specific origins are unknown, but the earliest recorded mention of Key lime pie might have been produced by William Curry, a ship salvager and Key West’s first millionaire. Supposedly his cook,”Aunt Sally”, made the pie for him. It appears his crews of sponge fishermen at sea didn’t have access to ovens but the original version allowed the creamy pie to be prepared without baking. Early writings state that Aunt Sally’s version called for a graham cracker crust and gently whipped cream.
Many cooks and bakers in Florida assert their recipe is the only authentic version. Key limes (also called Mexican or West Indian limes) are the most frequent lime found across the world; the U.S. is the exclusion in preferring the larger Persian lime.
Both contentious versions center around crust and topping. Early pies probably didn’t even have a crust, but now locals vacillate between traditional pie crust and graham cracker. And then there is the topping. The two camps argue meringue vs. whipped cream. (Apparently these people have a lot of time on their hands) Contrary to popular belief, what makes the filling creamy isn’t cream whatsoever but sweetened condensed milk which is thicker than evaporated milk and comes in a can, initially introduced by the Borden Dairy firm in the late 1800s. It is possible that when the sponge divers had anything to do with the pie, they really had plenty of canned eggs, milk and Key limes on board (and a good deal of sponges for cleanup ).
Although grown for centuries in Asian and South America, they did not make an appearance in the U.S. until the late 1800s. Which means foodie president Thomas Jefferson missed out entirely. (How he would have loved those pies!)
If you visit Key West, pie factories and bakeries abound, and you can literally eat your way from one end to another, reveling in the various offerings and deciding for yourself which one you like best. Additionally, there are stores which sell dozens of products improved with Key lime, such as moisturizers, potpourri, candles, soaps, candies and biscuits. Unfortunately for much of America, procuring authentic Key limes is not always simple, and using regular limes simply won’t do. Oh sure, you can purchase bottled juice which the locals would frown on, but for some it is much better than nothing.
Starting in 2013, the yearly Key Lime Festival is held over the July 4th weekend for a celebration of their favourite citrus not only as pie but in other foods, drinks, and an important portion of their. Clearly these aficionados take their pie quite seriously and expect no less from anyone else. And incidentally, don’t even think about using frozen topping. The whipped cream authorities will find you and have you arrested.